Everything Counts in Large Amounts

Dear Director / VP / CEO,

This is an open letter to you, especially if you are involved in Program Management, R&D, Product Management or otherwise delivering products.

In this blogpost I want to share with you what it feels like to be working on a large, intensive, feature-rich program. Of course, most of you reading this blog-post, like myself, have been there before. Just that we tend to forget what it is like being a programmer or a tester or a teammate in general (much like that as parent we sometimes forget what it is like being a child).

I am doing this by referring to a popular song that describes similar feelings very vividly.

As you might have guessed, this is the song by Depeche Mode I am referring to:


The lyrics are from Depeche Mode’s official website.

The handshake seals the contract
From the contract there’s no turning back
The turning point of a career
In Korea being insincere
The holiday was fun-packed
The contract, still intact

So, you, or some high-profile VP sales just came back from a high-profile sales-workshop at a very-high-profile client. Everyone’s excited towards the newly signed deal, and you summon the department to a high-spirited we-are-the-champions pitch. Only you feel frustrated that the audience is not sharing your enthusiasm. You see, for them, they are the last ones to know that such a deal was on the cards at all, and usually no one asked them before signing the deal what are the implications, and maybe they have some brilliant ideas about it.

Coming back to the child analogy, imagine you are at your dinner table, telling the entire family: “Mom (or Dad) and I have great news! We are relocating to Mauritius for two years. It’s going to be a fantastic experience for the family. I will be flying out in mid-August, and you all will be joining just before school begins”. The kids are last to know, and they have no say about it. Nor do your team members – only they are not five year-olds anymore.

For the company this is a breakthrough. For the teams – this is yet-another-stay-late-work-hard opportunity.

The grabbing hands grab all they can
All for themselves – after all
The grabbing hands grab all they can
All for themselves – after all
It’s a competitive world

This is what it feels like in the team: we live in a commercial, highly-competitive market. We dig that. We understand this project is really important yada-yada-yada. Can we also have some of the bonus the sales people are getting? Because experience shows that we will be doing all the hard work, while others are going to be in five stars hotels, signing off the next deal, putting even more pressure on us to start the next sky-rocketing project (not that sales people really have this kind of live. This is just a plausible inner story team members often have).

Of course, no one is going to tell you that. If you have been in similar situations before as a teammate, you know too well what I am writing about.

Everything counts in large amounts

And here’s the knockout – only large amounts count. The only point where we will have a chance to celebrate – is the end of the project. Not only this is make-or-break, not only it depends on a gazillion things besides our own team, we will, if we’re lucky, have a small celebration to relax before moving on to the next project. Yeah! Lucky us.

The graph on the wall
Tells the story of it all
Picture it now see just how
The lies and deceit gained a little more power
Confidence – taken in
By a suntan and a grin

The result, as you may have experienced by now, is cynical, frustrated, not vey happy. You may not be able to put the finger on it, what makes it even worse. Heck, it may even make you angry that the teams are not engaged in the mission as much as you are. So how can you change that? How can you stop the cynicism and get more enthusiasm?

A possible answer is implied in the title: If we could count in small(er) amounts, could we change the levels of frustration?

It is shown time and time and time again – programs that are measured frequently according to what really counts, become more successful, less frustrating and what more, can be stopped with less sunk-cost – meaning that the large amount itself does not have to be decided up-front. That there is turning back without an intolerable price attached to it.

As you can imagine, it starts with the contract. If the contract reflects the multiple turning-back points, it advocates sincerity, it increases the likelihood that this will be reflected in the work itself. For example, if the contract is based on either scope or on time – and not on both.

From the teams’ perspective, the contract is usually the plan. If the plan reflects that at regular intervals we will review what really counts, this will influence the work being carried out between intervals. Moreover, the next building-block will not commence until we have something that counts.

It also helps to see the next building blocks ahead of time. That is, the earlier the team will be involved in what comes next, will also help in engaging the team members.

To do this, building blocks should be what they are – building blocks size, not entire building size. At the same time, the outline of the entire building should be made known. This way teams can work on manageable sized deliverables, while seeing how they contribute to the overall structure. By doing this, program managers can see how the entire structure evolves, and make timely decisions when things change.

The outcome is that “the grabbing hands” grab what’s been made available without compromising the teams’ enthusiasm and motivation. On the contrary – it becomes a sustainable ecosystem: the grabbing hands get what they need, and the teams get ever more enthusiastic delivering it. Turning a win-lose scenario into a mutual interest one.

Is this at all possible? It sure is! When you know how, it is quite simple to do, albeit not necessarily easy. In contrast, big up front programs are hard and complicated to manage, leading to the frustration that incremental approaches successfully address.

So, what’s next? Do you want to learn how it gets done in practice? Do you want to try it out in ‘lab conditions’ before you try it on your own organization?

photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pedrosimoes7/7018543323/ by pedrosimoes7

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